As with most election campaigns, science is never on the top of the minds of voters. Perhaps it is because elections are geared towards appealing to emotion (the irrational) rather to that which is inherently rational: science.
Aberrations can occur when emotion drives science, but since advocacy taps emotion, channeling emotional appeal can be effective for lobbying for or against political action with respect to certain areas of scientific study.
Three such issues are global warming, embryonic stem cells and outer space. Al Gore (of all people) got a number of people passionate about the weather (of all things). However, is climate research the best pursuit for elusive research dollars? Or are people too “hot headed” about the topic? According to its emotional advocates, the “debate is over” and one could conclude from such a conclusive declaration that further research is unnecessary and that it is action which is needed.
Does politics hurt science? A lot of scientific study is accomplished using tax dollars, so politics will inevitably get involved. I spent a year doing malaria research in the United States in 2002. At the time, less than one year after 9/11, I was told that when professors made grant applications to federal funding agencies, they would try to find a link between their research and counter-terrorism in order to secure funding. Now, researchers tie their projects to climate change.
Malaria is an infectious disease and certain infectious diseases could be used in a biological terrorist attack. Similarly, malaria is de rigeur in the climate change debate as warmer swampy areas are breeding grounds for the malaria vector. Unfortunately for our funding, malaria is a highly unlikely infectious disease for use in terrorism and studying new ways of combating the malaria parasite directly (which is what we were researching) has nothing to do with climate. Research dollars are more likely to go to projects that find evidence to support the theory of anthropogenic climate change, not to fund research that treats its theoretical effect. Public money instead more broadly targets climate change to reduce the incidences of malaria by reducing the atmospheric concentration of CO2. This is akin to hitting an infectious mosquito with a proverbial sledgehammer. Governments will spend billions on climate change when lives can be saved at $10 per net and relatively few research dollars to develop new treatments.
Further, money is redirected into projects that are sometimes only tangentially support the theory of human-caused global warming. What do the mating songs of the American Tree Sparrow have to do with climate change, you may ask? Are their songs sadder this year compared to last indicating a warming Earth? Get some research dollars behind that project!
Emotion can also inhibit scientific inquiry. Embryonic stem cell research has proven to be a political hot potato in the past. There is great potential for therapeutic advances derived from such research. Advocates with or without a strong grasp of the cellular basis of life (and/or what constitutes human life) constitute both sides on the debate regarding research involving these cells. In many cases, emotion informs their position on the science rather than their scientific position. George W. Bush took a mediating approach on the issue when it crossed his desk earlier in his term of office: while allowing for research to be conducted on the cells, federal funds would not be used. Did the conciliatory approach cause unnecessary scientific stagnation because the emotional element? Or, as some would argue, were emotionally-driven second thoughts necessary to preserve ethics in science (or at least that which is funded in part by people morally opposed to such research)?
Scientists must always be mindful of ethics as they proceed, yet a populist balancing of complicated scientific understanding and ethics has the potential of being regressive in its emotive and sometimes ignorant reactions on a variety of research topics.
On the other hand, emotionally-driven science can deliver research dollars for tangible and measurable benefit. Consider the amount of resources used pursuing cancer treatment options and even potential cures for certain forms. Certainly this is a better pursuit than spending eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers (which were to be put in phials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers)*.
Should science policy discussions be limited to the experts since they are more likely to understand the parameters of rational scientific pursuit? Or should the process be influenced by the general public who possess real (even if uninformed) concerns often times driven by irrational emotion? Politics, often a product of emotion, causes aberrations in the scientific process. Where can we can find the ideal?
The Iowa caucuses are being held tonight. Here are the positions of the visible US Presidential candidates on science (or at least that which intersects politics due to emotionally driven undertones). (graphic from Nature.com)
*apologies to Swift